In 2015, Chris Heston kept a struggling Giants rotation aloft, despite sagging in the second half of the season, and the hope was he could repeat that success in 2016. He did not, and consequently was traded to the Mariners last week for a PTBNL, who will probably not be Luiz Gohara, despite the hopes of certain commenters over at McCovey Chronicles (or even Boog Powell. But...what a weird thing to wish for). Heston had to be moved to make room for newly-signed closer Mark Melancon, but was probably headed for DFA-ville the next day if Trader Jerry hadn’t snapped him up from the as-is table.
There are some troubling things about Heston. He had a lousy 2016, even in the minors, and he has an injury history rolling all the way back to 2013, along with some potential conditioning concerns. There’s also his somewhat infamous lack of velocity (if an article is written about Chris Heston and it doesn’t mention his depressed velocity, has it really been written at all?):
But the concern here isn’t so much the low velocity—Dipoto has already shown he doesn’t care as much about lighting up the radar gun as he does about controlling the zone with command and control—but the recent steep decline in that area. At the beginning of the 2015 season, Heston was averaging 90-92 on his fastball; by September, he was down to the high 80s. This loss of velocity was consistent across all his pitches. Things were even worse during his brief stint in the majors in 2016, as his velocity continued to tumble, with each of his pitches seeing a net loss of about 3 mph (except his slider, holding steady around 77 mph). Heston doesn’t lean on his fastball much; instead, the sinker is his primary pitch, and he uses his change, slider, and curve as secondary pitches. However, in his brief appearance in 2016, he was throwing the fastball more than any other pitch than his sinker. This might signal a change in mechanics that was underway, or maybe a new approach to the plate as hitters adjusted to his sinker. Also, apparently Heston runs skinny and can wear down over the season; injuries have plagued him throughout his career, and in 2015, he ran a 3.29 FIP in the first half of the season vs. a 5.26 in the second half.
Disregarding his 2016 numbers and second-half swoon, there’s a lot to like in Heston’s 2015. A 53% groundball rate (12th best in baseball in 2015) with a K-BB of about 10% and an approach that sees him pitching to contact, keeping the ball low in the zone, reminds me a lot of Mike Montgomery. Heston also showed an ability to limit hard contact in 2015, at 26.1% (18th best among qualified starters). If Heston is able to repeat his 2015 performance, a strong Mariners infield will work to his benefit. Heston gets so many groundballs by pounding the bottom of the zone, showing an excellent ability to locate his pitches, and although he’s not a huge strikeout pitcher, he is able to manufacture some whiffs there:
Mike Krukow, Giants broadcaster, went on the radio and gave this reason for why he thought the Giants parted ways with Chris Heston:
“I think he wasn’t progressing as they wanted him to progress,” Krukow said. “I don’t think he had a consistent velocity on his sinker, and when you have an inconsistent sink, you’re vulnerable. Now you have a question, is he best suited as a starter or as a long guy. Obviously I think the Mariners picked him up because they want him to start, but they do have some more work in order to get him be more consistent with velocity and movement.”
This isn’t a particularly stirring endorsement, but we’ve seen the Mariners pitching coaches have success with changing up Paxton’s arm slot and attempting to change up Tai’s mechanics (although it’s probably fair to declare that an INC rather than a pass). I see three outcomes for Heston’s tenure in Seattle. At the worst, the Mariners have gotten some pitching depth to stash in Tacoma in case everything goes wrong at the major league level. Most likely, they’ve gotten a capable long reliever/spot starter in the style of Mike Montgomery. The best case scenario—and the one that’s probably the most unlikely—is Painter/MSJ manage to Obi-Wan him into a decent #3 starter by helping Heston improve his secondary offerings, particularly his curve, which he doesn’t always throw a lot but leaned on heavily in his no-hitter. And who knows? Maybe without the annoyance of having to bat (although, fun fact! 2015 Chris Heston’s batting average was 20 points higher than 2015 Mike Zunino’s!), Chris will have more time to recover between innings and gift Seattle with its Best Bounceback Campaign by a Chris since...2014.
Here’s Heston striking out a ton of Reds, just for funsies.
And here’s Chris Heston shutting down the Astros, because screw those guys:
Welcome, Chris. Anyone who gets the Astros that mad is a friend of ours.